Can Ganga come to be saved? What can be done to completely clean up India’s holy river?

18 February, 2021
Fisherman Rambabu Sahani remembers his childhood days and nights when the Ganga River used to be clear and fit for drinking.

“The Ganga was so clean that the coins offered were visible at the bottom. However now there’s so many mud that visibility is normally zero,” says the 35-year-old. “We're able to drink the water … however now it’s unfit for drinking.”

Actually, the Ganga, or Ganges, has become so polluted that fishermen like him, in Varanasi city, “aren’t permitted to fish”. Even the seafood there constitute a well being risk.

“This contamination isn’t obvious with the naked eye, but found when fishes were tested,” says B D Tripathi, chairman of the Mahamana Malaviya Ganga Research Centre.

“It had been imperative that intake of these fishes needed to be stopped. Hence the simply choice was to ban angling.”

Professor B D Tripathi started researching pollution found in the Ganga in 1972.

Sahani, even so, has known no other life than fishing. He still is out to fish, but the law enforcement “harass” the fishermen network continuously. “It is becoming challenging for us,” he says.

The Ganga isn't only a holy river to the Hindus but also one of the bedrocks of Indian civilisation.

And it faces a grave threat due to the different cremation rituals on its banks through the years, unplanned urban and professional expansion, and sewage and chemical substance effluents.

Reports since 2017 declare that about 4.8 billion litres of sewage from 118 towns and cities flows in to the Ganga daily, furthermore to garbage and organic and natural waste. However the functioning capability of sewage treatment crops is merely a billion litres.

Pollution turns the Ganga right into a toxic stream at several points during it has the journey to the ocean.
The programme Insight examines if the Ganga can ever go back to a pristine state.

According to India’s Central Pollution Control Plank, pollution levels at 80 monitored sites on the Ganga possess risen since 2013.

The biochemical oxygen demand was a lot more than 3 milligrammes per litre at 36 sites - not fit for bathing - and 2 to 3 3 mg per litre at another 30 sites in 2017.

As a reference, unpolluted rivers routinely have levels below 1 mg per litre, whereas the pollution in Ganga reaches levels that are harmful to the river’s species and people who utilize the water.

The river isn't fit for bathing along several stretches.
“Major pollution is a leading cause of bio-accumulation of any toxicant,” notes B D Joshi, professor emeritus of zoology and environmental science at Gurukula Kangri University.

“Through fishes, it reaches human beings and … has been found causing several diseases like paralysis, like cancer, like skin diseases and hepatitis or, say, dysentery.”

An important factor in the pollution may be the tanneries in Kanpur, metropolis in Uttar Pradesh state famed for processing animal hides into finished household leather. “The process made wastewater with high concentrations of chromium,” notes unemployed tannery employee Amit Kumar.

After that in 2018, the Uttar Pradesh government shut down round 260 tanneries to keep the river clean. Most of them possess since been permitted to reopen if indeed they operate at 50 % of installed ability and meet environmental norms.

Tannery staff treating animal hides.
But Kumar believes that many tannery owners are hoodwinking the federal government.

“All of the tanneries are staying issued notices. Once the see comes, the owners shut down the businesses but start working in the night time and drain the polluted drinking water,” says the 38-year-old.

Asad Iraqi, standard secretary of the Household leather Sectors Welfare Association, says the fault lies mainly with the sewage treatment crops.

“Either (the tanneries) are actually mailing their effluent for the final discharge to the normal treatment plants … (or) doing all their treatments by themselves premises. And the tanneries that happen to be running are all obtaining the parameters imposed,” he says.

“But the common treatment vegetation have not really been upgraded. Most of the civil sewage is going untreated in to the holy river.”

Mr Asad Iraqi in Kanpur.

Amid these claims and counter-claims, Kanpur has turned into a “symbol of pollution”, says Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the director standard of the National Objective for Clean Ganga.

“Kanpur is the most significant city (in the talk about). Something like 35 lakhs - 3.5 million-plus (people) - is there, water becomes fewer and … sewage and commercial pollution both have already been a major reason behind concern.”

Following the crackdown on tanneries, Kumar lost his job and has already established to carefully turn to manual labour and other means, including going without food, to survive and feed his family.

Downstream found in Varanasi, Sahani’s livelihood can be affected. “I used to earn 2,000 rupees (S$36) each day. And nowadays, I generate around 200 to 300 rupees a day. We choose fishing, but the seafood aren’t there,” he says.

"After (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi found power, we'd high expectations that our lives would transformation for the better, but our income's been reduced."

Varanasi may be the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
To save the river they worship, some people holy men have set their lives at risk.

G D Agarwal, an environmental scientist in the Indian Institute of Technology who exactly became a swami, started a hunger strike found in 2018 to check the river’s misuse. He passed away after fasting for 111 days.

Swami Shivanand Saraswati, the founder of the Matri Sadan ashram found in Haridwar - found in the foothills of the Himalayas - says he is also willing to give his lifestyle for the cause.

“We’ve renounced the environment, no doubt (about any of it). But renouncing the community doesn’t mean that we can’t see the plight of the persons, of the society, of the surroundings and we can’t carry out anything,” says the 73-year-old.

“Renunciation doesn’t imply that one will become passive. We’re not really passive saints.”

Swami Shivanand Saraswati praying to the Ganga on a misty morning.
A member of his ashram, Swami Atmabodhanand, a former pc science scholar, fasted for 194 days. He finished his fast following the Indian authorities gave a created assurance that it would act to save lots of the river.

But the 28-year-old says the federal government hasn't kept its promise, therefore the monks are establish to maintain fighting until four key demands are met.

Swami Shivanand says: “Firstly, the (focus on) 4 dams that’s heading on … should be (halted). As well, (pebble) mining ought to be stopped in Haridwar.

“Thirdly, there must be a Ganga parishad (council), which would look after the Ganga, and (fourthly) a Ganga Act.”

Regardless of the criticism and doubts, the federal government affirms that it's on course because of its Clean Ganga mission and is also focused on keeping the river’s uninterrupted flow - but additional time and dialogue are needed.

River clean-up efforts.
“We’re trying to function (it) out and convince various other stakeholders as well,” says Mishra. “We’ve fulfilled (the swamis) … and they’ve been reassured enough to trust us and give (us) some more time.

“It’s good that stakeholders possess the interest of the Ganga in their mind, but there would be some constraints (and) timeframe in which these exact things will happen.”

Modi launched his flagship Namami Gange programme a month after he took office found in 2014. The 200-billion-rupee program aims to create several sewage treatment crops, develop riverfronts, clean up the river and restore biodiversity along the way.

And over time, there have been some changes.

Before 2014, tour guide Vimal Kumar Pathak often found it “embarrassing” when he showed tourists round the river and Varanasi because of the filth.

Mr Vimal Kumar Pathak is also a philosophy graduate.
“The boatman and I would have to interact and divert tourists’ attention to the other side, from scenes of folks defecating on the riverbank,” cites the 55-year-old.

But in modern times, he has noticed that the riverbanks, long filled up with trash and human being excrement, look like cleaner.

“Folks have become aware and prevent others defecating on the ghat,” he says. “There’s no dilemma that more visitors, both domestic and international, are arriving at Benares (Varanasi).”

His revenue have increased, he offers, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“(When) the consequences of the cleaning commenced to show, I pointed out that the visitors … would switch their preconceived notions. Rather than staying just a few nights, they’d stay for four nights,” he cites.

“There’s without doubt that the cleanliness of the Ganga and its own ghats is a significant element in this.”

Among the ghats (riverside actions) of Varanasi.
The government can be confident that the clean-up project won't suffer due to the pandemic.

“COVID-19 … has been a big challenge globally. But I’m happy to let you know that not for a time (did) the sewage treatment crops that were created and the Namami Gange go wrong,” says Mishra.

“So far as finances are worried, I can let you know the programme is structured in such a way that we haven’t felt virtually any (financial) crunch … Nowhere in the field has any release (of cash) been stopped.”

After the pandemic commenced this past year, India’s nationwide lockdown as well resulted in a cleaner Ganga.

The Ganga river basin covers greater than a quarter of India's total geographical area.
“There were certain activities not occurring, and there is less demand for normal water,” notes Suresh Kumar Rohilla, senior director at the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi.

“So there was more water flowing in to the river, and the pollutants were diluted.”

As India’s pre-eminent river system, however, it soon showed why it has borne the brunt of the country’s growing population, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

“The moment the lockdown was lifted and industries started working and cities continued to flow sewage into the river, you can view the difference now. We’re back again to square one,” says Rohilla.

For some, like Kumar, better times have yet to dawn. “I can just ask the federal government to find a solution without shutting down the tannery sector or closing businesses,” he says.

Modi has made the Ganga clean-up a good primary mission of his government, but Joshi the professor emeritus thinks the river is “dying”.

“The Ganga will be cleaned only partially,” he says. “We can under no circumstances attain the … purity of the river Ganga, which we liked 50 or 60 years back.”

Mishra stresses the necessity for buy-found in from everyone. “No-one person can save the Ganga … It should be a collaborative job. And whatever we’ve noticed, I can tell you in the last three years I’ve seen change,” he says.

“We have to believe in it. And ‘we’ may be the answer. Only once everyone joins this work might it be possible, and it’s absolutely possible.”